Thank you, Simone
World's Most Talented Gymnast Completes Most Daring Act Yet
Simone Biles had the courage to show the world, on the largest stage possible, that the brain is as physical as muscle and bone. Some are attacking her, just like they did Naomi Osaka, but we stand with Ms. Biles, those of us that have experienced the real-world impacts of mental impairment. In addressing her limitations, Ms. Biles gave permission to others facing their own “demons” to stop and recognize the need for help.
The pressure of being an elite athlete must be unimaginable. I appreciate how the spotlight would provoke anxiety, especially in someone already prone to it, with thousands of cameras pointed your way and microphones everywhere. But even outside the spotlight, the weight of so much expectation must be crippling. Can you imagine being strong enough to cast all that aside to advocate for your mental health? Most of us can’t even do it when no one is watching.
“And I made up my mind to define my own destiny." -- Lauryn Hill
We knew the trolls would pounce, those without a fraction of her athleticism or accomplishment. I heard all their cry-me-a-river arguments when Ms. Osaka dropped out of the French Open. No one forced her to enter the tournament. If she wanted the big money, she should have expected the fame. Right, okay. But really? We’d rather not provide elite athletes some flexibility for their mental health when competing in major sporting events?
If Ms. Biles had sprained an ankle, no one would have argued that she be forced to try a death-defying vault. Well, hopefully not anymore. Instead, they’d be icing down her foot and telling her stay off it, with the hope that it might recover by the next day’s competition. But that doesn’t happen with the brain. It’s just another blatant example of our society’s prejudice.
Leaving the detractors aside, it’s surprising to me that it has taken this long for the issue to enter the public discourse. Professional athletes understand the importance of preparation. Their lives are dedicated to training, with every aspect of their existence optimized for performance. They are hyper-aware of their bodies, knowing that peak levels of fitness are essential to compete at the highest levels.
They also realize the power of mental preparation. Most professional athletes, and many amateurs aspiring to those ranks, have full time mental coaches. These counselors help in training the athlete’s brain to deal with the stress of high stakes competition, to remain focused on their process and ignore the noise.
“Keep ya head in the game.” -- Disney's High School Musical
But even our best athletes aren’t infallible. Muscles get pulled. Knees get hurt. And someone’s “head space” gets overwhelmed. The odds of becoming injured increase dramatically when professionals aren't fully prepared. Their bodies need to recover with proper sleep and nutrition. They need to warm up and cool down. If they ignore these essential requirements, months or even years of training could be sabotaged by injury. The brain isn't any different.
One would think that leagues would take a hard stance in support of their athletes. If Tiger’s life wasn’t such a crucible maybe he’d still be playing today. Wouldn’t the PGA be better off if he were? Of course, reporters need an opportunity to speak with the superstars. I guess, to Ms. Osaka’s point, a balance must be struck between the media and mental health. But it seems like a balance worth trying to find, especially if it keeps the best players in the competition.
I’m heartened to see so many powerful athletes speaking out about the importance of brain health. The voices of Ms. Biles and Ms. Osaka have been the loudest lately, but others across the sporting landscape have been vocal, too. Matt Wolff from the golf world recently advocated for his mental health. Anna Cockrell, one of our Olympic track stars, has been vocal about her depression over the past year, perhaps inspired by fellow Olympian Michael Phelps. BringChange2Mind has several athletic ambassadors, including the NBA’s Kevin Love, the WNBA's Jayne Appel-Marinelli, the MLB’s Ian Happ and the NFL’s Solomon Thomas.
“No one can fill those of your needs that you won't let show.” -- Bill Withers
As much as I would have loved to see Simone Biles fly through the air at the Olympics, I am so grateful for her courage and leadership. She proved that she’s not only a tremendous athlete but also a human being, like the rest of us. It is essential that today’s stars continue to talk openly about the realities of brain health. Only by making it a common topic of dialogue will the rest of society start to come around.
And the rest of society needs to come around. The brain is part of the body, it’s as simple as that. When the brain isn’t functioning properly—when anxiety strikes or depression looms or psychosis scatters—people need help. They need love and support. They don't need attacks, prejudice and ridicule. And they certainly don't need to be swinging off uneven bars fifteen feet in the air.
When asked about Simone Biles, Michael Phelps was speaking for all of us not just Olympic athletes when he said:
“I think the biggest thing is we all need to ask for help sometimes...”